Characteristics of a Mentor

“Mentor: Someone whose hindsight can become your foresight.”

Thanks to a blog post by Michael Hyatt, I’ve been working on my life plan.  In one sense, I’m approaching 50 and perhaps it’s time for me to decide “what I want to be when I grow up.”  In another, I’ve experienced that writing down a plan itself leads to a greater sense of commitment to the actions necessary to implement the plan successfully.  I rediscovered this sense of commitment recently on a particular topic in my life plan: mentoring.

I believe it good sense to surround ourselves with trusted advisors, coaches and mentors.  Each brings value to us in different ways.  My own framework of advisors, coaches, and mentors looks something like this:

  • An Advisor offers insights along the lines of “research and experience have shown this to be the best way” or “you ought to take this into consideration.”
  • A Coach asks the questions, “What have you tried? How has this worked? What else can you try?” as a means to identify barriers and to design strategies and actions to overcome them.
  • A Mentor says “this is how I did it, and here’s how it turned out”, based on his/her direct experience and knowledge.

I’m active in the formal mentoring program at the Johnson Space Center, where I’ve served as a mentor several times and also as a protégé in past years.  As I reflected on my own experiences while working on my life plan, a question kept lingering in the back of my mind: what differentiates between a good mentor, and a not-so-good one?  Because I’m a value-driven person, it’s important to me that the mentoring relationship is one of mutual value.  Additionally, my personal core value of excellence has me inquiring and evaluating my own performance as a mentor, both to affirm that we’re getting value but also to identify any needed areas of improvement in my own performance.

Recently, I read a blog post by Amilya Antonetti that helped shed some light on the matter of excellence for me.  In it, Amilya says that a mentor goes beyond my description of a mentor, with a simple addition: mastery.  For me, that turned on a light bulb.  Therefore, as I prepare to seek out mentors to help me with implementing my life plan, I intend on seeking mentors with the following characteristics:

Compelling.  Seek a mentor with an interesting life story.  A compelling mentor is more apt for the protégé to keep the momentum going and for successful engagement in the mentoring partnership.

Communicative.  Communication is a two-way street.  Seek a mentor who can communicate in multiple ways – in person, over the phone, through email, whatever.  As a protégé, be ready to do the same.

Credibility.  Seek a mentor who can provide guidance based on his/her own experience and knowledge and has the demonstrated track record of mastery to go with it.

Comfort.  Above all, seek a mentor with whom you are comfortable.  Mentoring does require an open mind and a willingness to receive critical feedback as well as attempt actions outside one’s normal comfort zone.

I’ve reinitiated contact with one of my former mentors, who greatly influenced me with the career choices I’ve made in recent years.  I’m also compiling a list of other mentors who might be able to help me with my life plan.  I’m revved up and ready to go.

What do you look for in a mentor?

Text Copyright © 2011, Joe Williams
Photo credit: iStockphoto/stphillips

Characteristics of a Mentor